‘I will not choose between the blue things of the world and the words that say them‘ (Maggie Nelson, Bluets, 2009)
I’ve only read two of Maggie Nelson’s books, The Argonauts (2015) and Bluets (2009) – actually, I’m still reading the latter at the time of writing. One of the things that struck me is that she often starts with, or comes back to, the issue of what language can and cannot do. As this question has been at the core of my writing practice from the beginning, I find Nelson’s reflections very helpful.
She seems to say that pitting the thing against the word for the thing is a theoretical convention, a convenience even, almost a complacency. There does not need to be a binary opposition between the world and the words, between an allegiance to the power and beauty of experience and the belief in the ability of language to transcribe it. Does the passionate search for the right words equate a denial, or refusal, of the limitations of language? Does this quest necessarily come with the threat of chaos and madness? Isn’t there another, joyful way to relate to the challenges that lived experience poses to our means of representation?
‘Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed. This idea gets less air time than his more reverential Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent, but it is, I think, the deeper idea. Its paradox is, quite literally, why I write or how I feel able to keep writing.’ (The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson, 2015)
The above is absolutely crucial to the debate: when you are saying that something cannot be said, you are somehow expressing the unsayable; you are pointing at it. In a way, then, you have said the unsayable. This is what the figure of speech, the ‘trope’ does: it turns around the thing (trópos in Greek means ‘turn’), it circumscribes it. As if someone was drawing a chalk circle where something should be if it was there. It is not the thing itself but it is good enough to hold it in.
The paradox Nelson finds so creatively potent, vital even, is one that Lacanian psychoanalysis also foregrounds: it is what you cannot say that makes you speak, write, and make art in all its forms. The problem of oedipal and structural psychoanalysis is that the unsaid becomes ‘fetishised’ (Nelson), turned into the cornerstone of a theory that doesn’t leave room enough for a profound shift in paradigms.
But first, another thought. The idea that words are not enough seems to be based on the assumption that they’d need to get directly at the thing in order to be enough; they’d have to hit the centre of the target, if you will, to coincide with the experience, impression, emotion. But even the memory of something never completely coincides with the thing, and a memory is not (or not only) made of words. So this goes beyond language and does not necessarily reflect on its efficacy. Rather, it has to do with how the finite structure of our lives and the passing of time mould reality. And even then; if the thing was recoverable in its entirety by words or other means, would this really be desirable? Would it mean a surplus of meaning, of potency in the expression or the figuration the thing? Or is it not precisely the representation of something that renders it so touching and enduring?
Perhaps that’s what Virginia Woolf was onto when she wrote: ‘I make it real [the shock, the blow] by putting it into words’ (A Sketch of the Past). Here it is words that enable the experience to consist and last so that the thread of it becomes part of the fabric of life. Words are not lacking, here; they are, on the contrary, all we have.
Words can be enough – if we let them.
In The Laugh of the Medusa (1974), Hélène Cixous operates a similar reversal of perspective (and this is my translation from the French text):
‘Wouldn’t it be the worst if, in truth, the woman was not castrated; if it was enough for her to stop listening to sirens (because sirens where men) for history to change course? You just have to look at the Medusa full in the face to see her; and she is not deadly. She is beautiful, and she laughs.’
Here she responds to Lacanian theory and the way it others what is before (“the pre-oedipal”) and outside (“the real”) symbolic castration. She historicises it, she stages the artificiality of the frontier between what can be said and what cannot be said.
If you only look at, and address what is reputedly chaotic, even deemed impossible, you might see that it is neither; it is just waiting for the right words, new words, words that will come from the margins of power – symbolic, monetary/ material, etc.
‘Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.’ (Audre Lorde, ‘Poetry Is Not A Luxury’, 1977).
…In the meantime, the nameless exists but illegally, under the skin and sotto voce – until it flowers on someone’s lips, and it dawns on us: it was right there.
Cixous goes on to remark that if femininity is similarly associated with death, if its continent is so ‘impenetrably dark’ in Freud’s image, it is because patriarchy needs such a mythology. The white fathers, as Audre Lorde calls them, require the exclusion the ‘feminine’ (however you invest it) in order for the ‘masculine’ to hold. As Michelle Boulous-Walker (1998) and Jan Campbell (2000) also demonstrate, women’s enforced silence is the condition of men’s speech.
They need to read our words as a morbid melancholic flirt with everything that flows because their fixity is killing them. And then they hide themselves in tight theoretical structures whose walls even the wind cannot make sing.
‘Words are good enough.’ (The Argonauts)
But the symbols, myths, images and concepts we use to think our lives and our societies have a direct impact on what is possible, precisely, to conceive and imagine, and, in turn, on what is possible to experience or even embody. I stumbled on an ideal formulation of this in J. Hillis Miller’s book Literature as Conduct (2005) whose epigraph is a quote by Henry James: ‘to ‘‘put’’ things [in a certain way] is very exactly and responsibly and interminably to do them.’ Miller expands by saying that ‘[p]utting things in words is speech that acts. It does something that may do other things in its turn.’ This echoes Audre Lorde’s belief that:
‘The quality of light by which we scrutinise our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives‘. (‘Poetry Is Not A Luxury’)
Words can be enough – but enough for what or who, and to do what with them? We haven’t even asked that question yet!
If we aim to diagnose and categorise, vertically, authoritatively, once and for all, no wonder it doesn’t work – words are not made for that: ‘It is idle to fault a net for having holes‘ (The Argonauts).
If, on the contrary, we pluralise what we describe (whether we think in plural forms or coin new words), if we strive to be hospitable to life in its irreducible heterogeneity, then we give our realities the right to be multiple, contradictory, uneven, weird, fluid and truer to what they are as we experience them.
Therefore, ‘How can the words not be good enough?‘ (The Argonauts)